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When Inclusivity Goes Too Far

Inclusivity is a good thing, right?  Sure.  However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  When the benefits of inclusivity start to cause more negative consequences than positive ones, it’s time to reevaluate.  It’s time to find ways of including others without incurring the negative consequences.

We Share the Same Biology

Before I get to the limits of inclusivity and when it transitions from good to bad, it’s important to acknowledge that absolute necessity of it and the tragedy when we don’t have any.  For far too long, people have been marginalized.  It makes no difference whether we’re speaking of the caste system in India, the fate of Blacks and Latinos in America, the First Nations people in Canada, Aboriginal Australians, or the challenges that befall gender equality across the globe.  It’s wrong.  We share the same biology, and we deserve an equal shot at a life of happiness and prosperity.

When I speak of the limits of inclusivity, I’m not talking about the need to return the scales to balance and even to tip them towards the benefit of those who have suffered by oppressive hands – many of whom may have been my ancestors.  No apologies can undo what has been done.

What I am talking about is how we include every voice today.  What I’m talking about is who to include in a room full of old white dudes or in a room full of school children.  The key here isn’t about race or gender, but how, in an attempt to level these scales, we may cause more trouble than we solve.

Creating Space and Safety

Irrespective of who is in the room, their makeup or experiences, every interaction should be done in a place where people feel safe.  They should feel like they can share their whole selves.  If someone isn’t cisgender, but they aren’t comfortable in sharing that with their family, we should endeavor to create a space that makes it acceptable for them to share with us.  The best form of humanity is one that accepts others for who they are – regardless of who they are.

Creating safety is substantially easier said than done.  First, we’ve got to turn off our natural tendencies to judge, because judging creates separation.  Second, we need to turn up our desire for understanding.  Our goal in creating a safe space is to understand – not necessarily agree.

If we can’t create places of safety, then we’ve failed before we’ve begun.  We cannot expect that everyone we interact with will feel safe – they’ve got their own internal experiences to build expectations on, but we’re responsible for the environment that we create.

The truth is all of this is critical preamble to understand before we explain why too much inclusivity can be a bad thing.

Too Many Voices

You walk into a busy restaurant and realize that you can no longer make out the words your companion is saying.  They raise their voice to a volume akin to yelling at your kid on the other side of a football field, and you’re able to barely make out their words.  You wonder if they’re angry or if they’re just struggling to get their voice above the noise.  You’ve just experienced what it’s like to have too many voices.  It overwhelms the senses and makes communication nearly impossible.  Because of the noise, all the subtly and nuance is lost.

The same happens when we invite too many people to be included in what we’re doing.  In the name of inclusivity, we turn the noise up to a level where no one can understand the conversation.  Some of this is in the sheer number of people.  Some of this is in who we invite and their inability to modulate their voice in ways that create space for others.  Some of those we include may themselves exclude others.

Tone Deaf

It’s rare that I encounter someone who hasn’t invited a friend to a party, a person to speak, or an organization to a partnership and regretted it.  The people get added and instantly take over the conversation or insist on becoming the center of the attention.  Their additional voice may be necessary, but the way that they use it causes so much harm that it’s appropriate to wonder whether their voice was truly necessary or just useful and whether that utility is outweighed by the problems associated with the voice.

While I rarely find people who’ve not had the experience, it’s also true that it’s rare.  Though most of us bear the scars from such an interaction, we’ll admit it doesn’t happen frequently.  It’s not, however, so rare that we’re able to forget it.

Worst Case Scenario

Sometimes, the problem isn’t the need to be the center of attention but rather the fog that accompanies them.  One of the powers of diverse groups is their ability to see situations from multiple perspectives.  We want people who can see and help us avoid problems that are a part of potential solutions.  However, sometimes the feedback about potential problems are too much.

Consider for a moment that you want to ride a new roller coaster at your favorite theme park.  You assemble a group of friends to discuss the pros and cons of the experience.  While most of your friends egg you on and want you to come, there are some who are concerned about the dangers.  Some friends may consider things like losing your sunglasses, watch, or phone, others are concerned about less realistic things.  Instead of offering concerns and solutions to the problems that are most frequently encountered, they identify problems that almost never happen.

They might encourage you to consider what might happen if the ride gets stuck.  What would it be like to have to wait on the ride for an hour or more as the fire department is called to free you from a difficult position?  What happens if you come free from your restraint and fall to your death?  Perhaps an asteroid will come and hit the roller coaster.  It’s harder to see the line between the reasonable and unreasonable than it might appear.  Certainly, an asteroid is far-fetched, since we’ve not encountered something like that for a few million years, but getting stuck (though rare) may happen more commonly.

On the one hand, it’s probably a good idea to consider a quick stop to the rest room before riding; on the other hand, preparing for an asteroid is impossible.  This is the key as some people will bring up concerns that cannot be solved – but also are not about the decision at hand, they’re about living life or doing business.

We need to shape voices in ways that cause them to raise issues – but not disconnected concerns and certainly not raise concerns that are unrelated to the topic at hand.

Lack of Focus

Including additional voices also has the impact of reducing focus.  Each person has their own perspective and their own beliefs about what is the core of the problem.  Individuals’ core beliefs about the heart of the system are rarely in complete alignment.  Where one person may be laser focused on improving access to health care, the other person may be more concerned about efficacy of the treatments.  The net result can be a positive exploration about how the two relate – or it can be an unstated battle of wills as the two pull the discussion into two different but related paths.

Individually, the participants are clear with their focus, but they’ve not collectively reached complete understanding or agreement, and the result is a blurred sense of vision and approach.  If there isn’t sufficient effort to at least expose if not resolve the issues, the result is the lack of focus.  What’s particularly tragic about this is that these challenges often lie beneath the surface, undiscovered.  They eat efficacy and point towards problems ahead because of the distrust that builds as it becomes evident that others don’t believe in the same things that they do.  They’ve always believed the others understood the problem as they did – but that’s not the case.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Horst Rittel and his colleagues coined the term “wicked problem” and the ten criteria that make a problem wicked.  Wicked problems are the very kind of problem that we need diverse groups for.  They have no single definition nor solution, and often the actors trying to resolve the problem have no right to be wrong.  However, wicked problems amplify differences and conflicts.  They can be perceived in different ways by their very nature – and being able to see how others may see the problem differently is not always easy.

We must set the goal of inclusivity to the point of positive improvement in the outcomes we create.  When we’re being taken off track by people who can’t help us bring unity, acceptance, and coherence to our problems, then inclusivity has gone too far.

Certainly, getting more input and including more people is better than going alone.  An African proverb states that if you want to go faster, go alone; if you want to go further, go together.  In most cases today, we want to go further – but we can only go further with the right sized group.

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